Does Deception Belong at the Dinner Table?

For awhile, it felt like I wrote about Deceptively Delicious all the time.  Then, I decided to give you a break, purposely not delving into all of the rumors and drama surrounding the author and her famous husband.  I didn’t even mention how Jerry Seinfeld called Missy Chase Lapine (the author of The Sneaky Chef, a similar book) a “wacko” on Letterman because she accused his bride of plagiarism.  Well, here we are again – this time for a bit of feedback on the book from the nutrition world…

My friend, Sanna Delmonico, is a pediatric nutritionist. Immediately after learning about Jessica Seinfeld’s book, Deceptively Delicious, I called her to see if she felt the same way about it as I did. As a teacher of healthy cooking classes for children, I was quite upset about the idea of hiding and disguising veggies, instead of openly enjoying them. After all, our kids learn by watching our behavior – if we openly prepare and enjoy eating vegetables, our children will eventually come along for the ride. Plus, if we hide vegetables from our kids, we admit by default, that we think that our kids will not eat them and that they should be avoided. She agreed. Below is an article that she sent me tonight – along with quotes from her and one of her mentors, Ellyn Satter.

Nutrition Experts Debate the Merits of ‘Stealth’ Veggies
Dec. 3, 2007

One of the hottest books on children’s nutrition to come along in recent years has been Jessica Seinfeld’s “Deceptively Delicious.”

Written by the wife of comedian Jerry Seinfeld, the book explains how to grind up and hide vegetables in food without children knowing about it.

It includes recipes for chicken nuggets doused in a broccoli puree before being breaded and fried, mac and cheese spiked with cauliflower puree, brownies with pureed spinach and other supposedly kid-friendly foods with vegetables smuggled inside.

The book soared to the top of best-seller lists, but it’s been embroiled in controversy virtually from the start.

Most of the debate has been over the originality of the recipes, because a strikingly similar cookbook by Missy Chase Lapine titled “The Sneaky Chef,” was published six months earlier (and was proposed to Seinfeld’s publisher the previous year).

As the authors argue over potential “vegetable plagiarism,” nutritionists have focused on the bigger picture. Is the advice being dispensed really good for kids?

Diet Experts Battle Over Tricking Kids

Some nutrition experts applaud the concept, encouraging parents to do whatever it takes. Others are grateful that the buzz over the book has at least drawn attention to children’s nutrition.

But many nutritionists think the stealth approach sends several wrong messages.

Mary Abbott Hess, a registered dietitian and culinary consultant in Chicago, is worried that the covert strategies reinforce the notion that vegetables are so bad they have to be hidden. She thinks the approach also validates “deception.”

Ellyn Satter, a childhood feeding expert and author of “Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming,” believes this type of trickery erodes trust.

“Sooner or later, children catch on that they’re being tricked,” she said. “When this happens, they feel hurt and angry and are set back in their ability to learn and grow.”

Satter said the goal of parents should not be to get certain foods into children, but to trust them to push themselves along in learning to enjoy those foods for a lifetime.

Must Veggies Really Hide Their Taste?

Early childhood is a critical time of palate development. When vegetables are hidden, children miss out on the opportunity to acquire a taste for these important foods, said Sharon Salomon, a dietitian and food writer in Phoenix.

“Kids should know what the naked vegetable looks and tastes like or they’ll never learn to eat it,” she said.

“What’s the point of hiding a carrot? If the child likes it, he won’t know he likes carrots,” said Napa-based dietitian and children’s nutrition expert Sanna Delmonico, founder of Tiny Tummies.

“I want him to know, so he’ll be more likely to try carrots prepared a different way the next time.”

Delmonico said her objection to Seinfeld’s approach goes beyond the deceit. She thinks the time-consuming and complicated recipes make extra work for already busy parents.

“Getting children to eat vegetables just isn’t that difficult,” she said. “Vegetables are delicious and beautiful. We should be highlighting them, not hiding them.”

Boston dietitians Liz Weiss and Janice Bissex, co-authors of “The Moms’ Guide to Meal Makeovers,” agree. They’re worried the book will encourage parents to throw in the towel and give up on offering “real” vegetables to kids.

“These recipes require a huge amount of time and effort,” said Weiss. “I’d rather parents channel their energy into making vegetables more appealing to kids than to give up too quickly.”

Weiss and Bissex tested some of the recipes in “Deceptively Delicious” to see whether they worked and, more importantly, to see how nutritious they really were. Nutritional analysis of the recipes was not included in the book, which they thought was a “red flag.” Several of the recipes they analyzed provided a measly amount of vegetables some only about one tablespoon per serving. They also didn’t think they tasted very good.

“The great irony is that these foods that are attempting to mask the taste of vegetables didn’t taste good,” said Weiss, who thought many didn’t look good either.

“Green chicken nuggets are not exactly kid friendly,” she said.

“The recipes seemed to focus mainly on sneaking in small amounts of vegetables and, in many cases, missed the boat on overall good nutrition,” said Bissex.

For example, a recipe for chocolate pudding included pureed avocado but surprisingly no milk, so it provided no bone-building calcium. It was also high in sugar (10 teaspoons per half-cup serving) and contained, oddly, uncooked cornstarch that gave it a gritty texture, she said.

Weiss and Bissex agree with the concept of boosting the nutrient density of the foods kids eat such as adding grated carrots to meat balls or finely diced bell peppers to pasta sauce but disagree with the “deceptive” approach. They’re also concerned that the recipes help fuel the concept of “kid food.”

Exposure, Not Entreaties, Make Kids Eat Healthier

Seinfeld readily admits that she resorted to these stealth tactics with her children because she grew tired of “bribing them, begging them, whining at them” to eat their vegetables.

But studies show that pressure like this doesn’t work. When you bribe or force children to eat certain foods, they like those foods less.

Nutrition experts recommend giving your kids time and multiple opportunities to enjoy vegetables.

“We should be making vegetables taste good with seasonings and sauces and dips, and not apologizing for them,” said Delmonico. “If we do that, children will learn to eat vegetables the same way they learn to eat other foods: by seeing parents eat it, looking, smelling, slowly tasting and learning to enjoy.”

Nutritionists say engaging kids in selecting and preparing vegetables are good ways to make veggies more appealing. Trips to farmers markets and even growing your own vegetables help too.

Salomon believes the stealth approach is simply not sustainable.

“Let’s face it: Moms may buy the book and cook and puree for a few weeks, but I don’t think this is going to change the way America eats,” she said. “It’s a gimmick and gimmicks don’t usually stick around for long.”

Janet Helm is a Chicago-based registered dietitian and nutrition/culinary consultant.

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12 Responses to Does Deception Belong at the Dinner Table?

  1. thanks for sharing this article. you already know my stance on the whole thing. ;)

    i’d love it if you could stop by my blog today to share your experiences about breastfeeding and the link to eating veggies/fruits. thanks!

  2. Florinn says:

    My kids love veggies and will eat them just about any way, but some of JS’s recipes are great too, and becoming favorites in my family. I have no problem adding extra veggies where I can, and its not “deceptive” b/c my kids are right there watching me make it, and even helping.

    I think as mama’s we should be supporting each other. We all have the same goals-raising happy, healthy kids. We don’t need to cut each other down. If Jessica Sienfeld has a book that is sold out of bookstores nationwide and helping people feed their children well, I see nothing wrong with that.

    And a lot of information in the article cited is from nutritionists-but regards child psychology. Wha??? Where are the studies they are citing? Who is doing this research & who is reviewing it? Children are “tricked & lied to” by their parents about Santa Claus too, but we don’t have a nation of angry adults who are resentful-maybe a handful here and there.

    People have the choice as adults to do what they like with their own children. If you felt your parents were tricking you, fine don’t “trick” your kids. But I know several people whose kids wouldn’t ever eat veggies, who are learning to enjoy the flavors when the veggies are “hidden” in other foods. Now they are starting to eat vegetables plain too, because they’ve grown accustomed to the taste.

  3. Michelle Stern says:

    Florinn – thanks for your comments. I admit – I am thrilled that so many people are buying Seinfeld’s book because they want their kids to eat better. We have tried a few of the recipes here, too. My kids helped and I made a big deal about the “secret” ingredients that made them healthier than some of the traditional versions. While the recipes tasted fine, the actual amount of veggies per serving was quite low. Better than nothing, I suppose… But I would rather try some fun and new veggie dishes to highlight why they are special separately. Overall, the book is getting families cooking, which is better for everyone than simply opening packages and doing take-out. I just hope that parents don’t lose sight of serving and enjoying veggies for their own sake (they are delicious) and teaching by example.

  4. Idetrorce says:

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

  5. Idetrorce,
    You don’t agree with ME or the nutritionists in the article? What don’t you agree with? I enjoy seeing other points of view…

  6. Molly says:

    Probably the only reason I absolutely LOVE eating Brussel sprouts, broccoli, green beans, carrots, and other vegetables is because my parents fed them to me at a young age, and I accepted them as they were, with no frills, because vegetables are just what we ate. This book sends the wrong message to parents looking to feed their kids healthy food. I looked through the book to see what all the hype was about, and was disappointed that it was becoming a bestseller. It’s just wrong.

  7. emily says:

    My question is this: How much nutritional value is really added to the food when you’ve steamed and pureed and cooked a vegetable a second time? Would it be much more than is already included in a daily multi vitamin and regular fruits and vegetables that are included with meals?

  8. Hi Emily,
    I don’t really know if any nutrients are lost the second time the dish is cooked.

    But I would rather see people eating home-made food than nutrients all wrapped up in a pill. (Just my humble opinion!). I get worried about what pills teach kids about problem solving…but don’t get concerned about eating home cooked healthy meals :-)

  9. Deb Fennema says:

    Well, just my 2cents worth….”Sneaking’ veggies into our childrens meals is something that has been going on for decades. My oldest will be 33, and my friends and I discussed how to hide nutritious ingredients in the meals. My grown daughter(no children) for years has used applesauce, and now pureed veggies in cake mixes and such in place of the oil. It makes them moist and not so fattening! Two women each wrote a cookbook about this subject. How about ‘great minds think alike’? One person thinks Jessica Seinfeld really doesn’t cook anyway… what do you base that on? If you watched her on Oprah, she stated that she puts ‘real’ veggies on the plate with the doctored food, and then doesn’t make a fuss about ‘eating your veggies’. Let’s not make a federal case out of hiding veggies in our kids meals. I know wives who hide vegetables in their husbands meals! Buy whatever book you want, or don’t, and celebrate the health of your children. And let’s leave the world, and the internet community a better place with positive comments :)

  10. Hi Deb,
    These books bring the importance of cooking for our families to the forefront, and for that I am very grateful. It is easy to be ideological about how things should be done – but at least both of these women are trying to feed their children home made and nutritious foods. Maybe one day, their kids will enjoy veggies for veggie’s sake. Thanks for visiting my blog.

  11. Deb Fennema says:

    Thanks for the welcome Michelle.
    I don’t know about Ms Lapine’s children, but from the Oprah show it sounded like Jessica Seinfeld’s kids liked their vegetables, some anyway. At least she wasn’t overly concerned about how much they actually ate since the rest of the meal had hidden special ingredients. That was my take on it anyway. It doesn’t help when we make the table a battleground, right? So if hiding veggies in the main dish, and not having to make a big deal about the actual vegetables works, I consider that a big plus!

  12. Amanda says:

    I quite agree with Deb, and if you don’t like the “deceptiveness” tell your kids what your putting in your food. I have had my 5 year old sons taste something and then told him what was in it and he was surprised not angry and it gave him the idea to try the vegetable on it’s own. I think that kids are so different in their personalities that you have to figure out what works for your own kids. I don’t think it will stop families from making “regular” vegetables. The book states several times that she serves regular vegetables too and veggies and dip before meals. I think it’s just another way to get more. I like the idea even for myself.
    Perhaps your child just won’t eat vegetables not matter what you try, probably just a stage and they will change with time and encouragement, but in the meantime don’t you want them to get some vegetables one way or another? I don’t usually sit down and list all the ingredients before meals whether I’m putting in puree’s or not, so my kids probably know one way or another. I suppose if they asked I would probably say “taste it and then I’ll tell you”. I will continue to do what I can to get as much fruits and veggies in my children “naked” and “hidden” FYI – I just discovered that my children will eat plain spinach salad with a simple honey mustard vinaigrette and a few sliced almonds. I was pleasantly surprised :)

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